Apartments integral for long-term development strategies

The issue of growth management moved to the front of the political landscape in November 1998, when voters passed 200 separate ballot initiatives designed to curb the effects of suburban sprawl and preserve open space.

With the economy soaring and crime rates falling, Americans have turned their attention to quality of life issues such as traffic, pollution and overcrowded schools. With that change in focus, growth management - long the purview of academics and think tanks - has moved from the ivory tower to the ballot box.

The issue resonates with voters and has become a political platform in prominent campaigns. For example, Vice President Al Gore made sustainable growth an early theme of his presidential campaign. In January, Gore rolled out a new $10 billion "livability agenda," and pledged to review federal programs and policies to ensure they do not thwart state and local efforts to "grow smarter."

Gore's interest in this issue could propel it to the top tier of debate in the 2000 election, stimulating a national debate about effective community development. For the apartment industry, this could be a win-win situation.

Such a debate could allow the industry to advance its environmental and land-use policy agenda. Likewise, sprawl's emergence as a hot issue in state and national politics could also help break the federal government's single-minded emphasis on home ownership, which ignores the density efficiencies of apartments and the importance of housing choice. The growing interest in sustainable communities also presents the apartment industry with the opportunity to dispel several myths associated with apartment development. A closer look at common apartment myths shows why apartments must be a critical part of sustainable community development strategies.

Myth: Apartments contribute disproportionately to school overcrowding

Public schools are usually the largest expense for local governments. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, apartments contribute fewer children per household to school systems than single-family homes. According to the Census Bureau's current population survey in 1998, 20% of all occupied apartments had one or more school-aged children, compared to 33% of owner-occupied single-family homes. The average apartment household had 0.3 children, while single-family homes had 0.6 children.

Myth: Apartments increase local infrastructure costs

In reality, the per-unit cost to provide public services decreases as the density of development increases. Low-density, single-family development requires more roads, sewers and water lines. Also, as single-family developments grow, public services must be spread over a larger area. For those reasons, the clustering of apartment homes makes them cheaper to service than single-family homes.

Myth: Apartments disproportionately increase traffic and congestion

Government officials often believe they can reduce traffic congestion problems by limiting apartment construction. However, they fail to consider that multifamily residents are more likely to use public transportation than single-family residents. A 1995 American Housing Survey estimates apartment residents average one motor vehicle per household, while owner-occupied houses average two vehicles. Data from the Institute of Transportation Engineers indicates an apartment property of two or more stories generates 30% to 40% fewer vehicle trips than single-family units.

Myth: Apartments do not pay their own way

Neighborhood activists often insist apartment residents do not pay for public services because they do not pay property taxes. While renters do not pay property taxes directly, apartment owners do, and evidence from national surveys shows, apartments actually pay property taxes at a much higher rate than single-family homes. Apartments also put fewer claims on the public services financed by local property taxes, such as schools and roads. So in many jurisdictions, apartment residents are actually subsidizing their single-family neighbors and not vice versa.

Myth: Apartments bring higher crime rates

This assumption is based on faulty perceptions of who lives in apartment communities. When analyzed on a per-unit basis, there is little evidence that the rate of police activity is higher in apartment communities than in single-family residences. In fact, apartment owners, sensitive to neighborhood fears, are concentrating more efforts on crime prevention and risk management. One of the fastest growing segments of the apartment industry is the luxury property sector which attracts residents with amenities such as built-in alarms and controlled access systems.

Myth: Apartments reduce the value of nearby single-family residences

This claim could be the most persuasive argument used to mobilize opposition to new apartment construction. But progressive communities have seen that a modern apartment community, through environmental planning and exterior landscaping, is fully compatible with surrounding single-family neighborhoods. The Urban Land Institute reports that, between 1987 and 1995, single-family detached dwellings located near multifamily communities (within 300 ft.) appreciated at nearly the same rate as those not near an apartment property, 3.12% compared to 3.19%.

Myth: Apartments do not bring value to local communities

Communities that adopt zoning and other policies to preclude renters actually lose both potential customers and employees for local businesses. Relocating and expanding firms look for communities that offer a wide range of housing options, including apartments, for their potential employees. An adequate supply of affordable housing, therefore, can be essential to a municipality's labor supply and its economic growth.

Myth: The preference for single-family housing is universal

Policy makers' preference for home ownership overlooks the simple but important fact that multifamily housing fills a market need. Many people now prefer to rent. For some, renting is the right economic choice. For others, apartments offer access to amenities and technologies not available or affordable in single-family housing. Still others appreciate the freedom to respond to job and lifestyle changes apartments offer.

Apartment residents span the full spectrum of American society and represent all age groups, family types, incomes and ethnicities. In fact, the fastest growing segment of renters are households with incomes of more than $50,000 per year.

Without apartments, the goals of smart growth can not be realized. In addition to providing a housing lifestyle a growing number of Americans prefer, apartments conserve land, use municipal infrastructure more efficiently, and place less burden on local schools or regional transportation systems.

Policy makers at all levels have begun a national debate designed to forge a new attitude towards land use. As apartment professionals interact with state and local planning agencies, they should use the opportunity to dispel myths about apartments.

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